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NOT BY BREAD ALONE : O.C.'s Best Bakeries Offer Tempting International Array

December 13, 1990|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson reviews restaurants for The Times Orange County Rdition

The holiday season is everyone's favorite time to indulge at a favorite bakery, and this is a wonderful area in which to do just that.

This is also the season when bakers really like to strut their stuff, when they work overtime to decorate gingerbread houses, yule logs and the other novelties that you don't see during the rest of the year. But even without the holiday treats, there's no denying the impressive variety out there.

Expect everything from mom and pop storefronts to giant commercial outlets, and a few surprises to boot. Quite a few places emphasize breads, but a host of others bake up specialty fare from just about everywhere: Europe, Asia, Mexico . . . and of course the good old U.S.A. So get your orders in now while the trays are still warm and save a little work in the kitchen.

Here's a short list of some better local bakeries, with apologies to the many good ones that I didn't have the space to include:

You can really go to town during the holidays at Herb's Black Forest, a classic pastry palace run by native Germans Herb and Elsbeth Mahler that's been a local institution for almost 25 years.

Feast on things like baumstamm , the German Christmas log full of woodsy chocolate frosting and meringue mushrooms; stollen , a yeasty, sugar-topped loaf with dried fruit; pfeffernusse , the crunchy, dome-shaped spice cookies, and real gingerbread houses, elaborately decorated, which look as if they were pulled out of a book written by the Brothers Grimm.

Pastries abound from all over central Europe in this bright, busy establishment; baigly , Hungarian nut roll, poppy seed Danish, ruglach , cream cheese pockets with raspberry jam, and a host of others.

Master baker Herb Mahler has a lot of help with his creations from an international staff of bakers he has assembled from such countries as Sweden, Austria and Mexico. There are plenty of American favorites too, such as pecan, apple, mince and cherry pie, plus a host of good breads, from salty homemade pretzels to kommiss , the hard soldier bread (sold with or without caraway) that has been the mainstay of German troops for centuries.

Herb's Black Forest, 18225 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley. Open Sunday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday till 6 p.m. (714) 964-2584.

A French baguette and a frothy cappuccino is hard to improve upon as a way to get the day off to a good start.

For proof, look at all the bicylists, power walkers and sun worshipers who stop by Pain du Monde's engaging Balboa Island stall every morning as part of their daily ritual. They are a healthy, contented looking bunch, and you can almost hear the New Age music they are listening to bubbling away under their headphones.

Pain du Monde specializes in good, wholesome breads, ones with names like 7 grain (made with spelt, rye, wheat, oats, millet, flax and molasses) and pain de campagne (a crusty French loaf). But it is also a bakery par excellence for breakfast pastries; yeasty Scottish scones, doughy cinnamon rolls, light-textured muffins like banana nut and double bran made with trace amounts of sugar and the classic baguette, indistinguishable from one you would munch on in provincial France.

Sit on the benches outside and eat your baguette while sipping a cup of fresh roasted coffee (from a company called Diedrich's), then take a loaf home for sandwiches. Everything is made on the premises, and often sold right from the oven. They even serve fresh juices.

Pain du Monde, 220 Marine Ave., Balboa Island. Open daily, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. (714) 675-7804. Also in the Atrium Court, Fashion Island. (714) 644-4835.

Growing up in suburban Boston, I stopped by Italian bakeries almost every afternoon on the way home from school. The smell of fresh foccaccia bread is still irresistible to me.

You can get this puffy, pan-baked bread at La Dolce Vita, a family bakery in Corona del Mar run by a young man named Vittorio Caputi. Caputi's foccaccia comes in two varieties, tomato oregano and garlic rosemary, and he bakes a mean herbal bread as well.

Try any of his bite-sized Italian cookies; torronccini , square-shaped, nut-spice cookies; amaretti , round balls rolled in pine nuts; regina , rectangular sesame cookies, and a whole slew of others.

All of his wares taste wistfully familiar to me, and are made with as little sugar as possible. Caputi is especially proud of a biscotto he calls quersamali , a hard, chocolate covered biscuit made with Amaretto and hazelnuts. He makes cannoli to order, and can prepare Italian style wedding cakes with a few days notice. He also serves cappuccino in plastic cups, to comply with city regulations that classify him as a fast-food outlet.

La Dolce Vita, 3635 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar. Open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday till 6 p.m. Closed Sunday. (714) 675-5388.

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